The beauty of Chinese numbers is that they are consistent. You learn the rules, and they just work. Even if you try to get flippant and say 一十 for “10” instead of just regular old 十, no one’s going to get upset.
The consistent beauty of Chinese numbers is made all the more obvious by the relative skankiness of numbers in English. I noticed this because my daughter (now somewhere between 2½ and 3 years old) has pretty much mastered all the numbers to 100 in Chinese, but the teens in English continue to stump her. She can count to 20 no problem, but if you ask her to read a random two-digit number that starts with “1” in English, that’s where the trouble starts. If she’s speaking Chinese, she can read either Arabic numerals or Chinese characters all the way to 100, but doing it in English trips her up especially for the range 11-20. She’s actually much better in the 60-90 range, because they’re regular.
If English numbers were totally regular like Chinese, we’d see these little gems (pretty much all of which my daughter has tried to pull off at one time or another):
Somehow I missed it my whole life, but one of the things that makes the names of the teens so bizarre (aside from the inexplicable “eleven” and “twelve”), is that the digits are represented backwards, only for these 7 numbers. When you see “36” and read it “thirty-six,” the “thirty” corresponds to the 3 on the left, and the 6 to the “six” on the right. So you’re reading the number, digit by digit, left to right. But for numbers like 14, 15, and 16, not only do they sound like 40, 50, and 60, but the order of the syllables better matches 40, 50, and 60 as well. And both the “-ty” and the “-teen” from those numbers originally represented “10,” right? These pairs are essentially pronounced as if they were the same numbers! Confusing as hell. I feel for my daughter.
Fortunately kids don’t realize they have good reason to be frustrated, and just jeep on truckin’.
Last week AllSet Learning staff took a team-building trip to the mountains of Zhejiang in Tonglu County (浙江省桐庐县). It was a nice trip, and one of the things that struck me most about the natural beauty there was the lack of litter and crystal-clear water. Anyone who has traveled much in China knows that it’s a beautiful, beautiful country, but disgracefully covered in litter in so many otherwise breath-taking tourist destinations. Not so in Tonglu!
I was also surprised to learn that the locals there drink the water straight from the mountain streams without treating it at all. They don’t have “normal” plumbing, it’s all piped from the higher regions of the flowing mountain streams. I have to wonder: with so much of China so heinously polluted, could this water actually be safe to drink?
Anyone else want to weigh in with some facts or links?
We learners of Chinese typically learn that “ayi” (阿姨) means “aunt,” and then soon after also learn that it is also a polite way to address “a woman of one’s mother’s generation.” Then, pretty soon after arriving in China, we learn that it’s also what you call the lady you hire to clean your home. (The last one tends to become the most familiar for foreigners living in China.)
Today I’d like to bring up a fourth use of “ayi” which kind of circles back to the first one, but is also subtly different, and additionally extremely interesting in the way that it makes young women squirm in social discomfort. This is the use of “ayi” that you really only learn if you spend enough time around young (Chinese-speaking) children in China.
Many terms for family and relatives are used quite loosely in Chinese to show familiarity or politeness. The way it works for little kids in China is something like this:
1. Little girls that are older than you are called “jiejie” (姐姐); little boys that are older than you are called “gege” (哥哥). Often this is a two-year-old calling a three-year-old “gege,” or even a 17-month-old calling an 18-month-old “jiejie.” That’s just how it works.
2. Little girls that are younger than you are called “meimei” (妹妹); little boys that are younger than you are called “didi” (弟弟). Again, the age difference might be tiny; it doesn’t matter. Even for twins, the older/younger aspect of the relationship is strictly acknowledged.
3. Here’s where it gets interesting… To a little kid, if you’re female, but are no longer a child, you’re suddenly an ayi. This often violates the “mother’s generation” rule that we learn in Chinese class… If the kid’s mom is 34, the kid is usually still going to call a 20-year-old girl “ayi” because a 20-year-old is obviously not a child. (Note: this is largely based on observations in Shanghai; use of the term may vary somewhat regionally. China is a big place!)
But this is where it gets very amusing to observe… a lot of 20-year-old girls have never really been called “ayi” before and they hate it. It feels like they’re being called OLD. In very recent memory, they may have had younger cousins calling them “jiejie,” but now this little kid is suddenly pronouncing them NOT YOUNG ANYMORE. A lot of these 20-year-old girls will correct the little kid that calls them “ayi,” telling the kid to address them “jiejie.” Most of the time the kids will have none of it, though. You can see it on their faces: “What? You’re not a little kid. You’re clearly an ayi.”
So yeah, I’ve been observing my toddler calling strange young women “ayi” and watching these young women freak out. And yes, it’s pretty funny to me.
So, to sum up, the four meanings of “ayi” (阿姨):
1. “Mother’s Siter” Ayi
2. Middle-aged “Ma’am” Ayi
3. Housekeeper Ayi
4. “I’m a little kid and you’re not” Ayi
If you’re in China and you’ve never noticed it before, be on the lookout for #4. It’s easy to spot, because it usually involves a young woman in her early twenties approaching and fawning over a cute little kid, then the inevitable offensive “ayi” term is used, the failed attempt at “jiejie” persuasion, and the young woman walking away pouting.
Stylized letters and characters are interesting to me, but how abstract can you get with Chinese characters? You kinda have to retain the strokes and radicals and stuff, right? Maybe not…
The characters represented above are 小燕画院.
Although the name is readable, it might take a bit longer to decipher than most Chinese text, even for native speakers. Have you ever spotted characters that have been taken even further into the abstract?
The webcomic Itchy Feet has some great comics on learning to communicate in a foreign language. I especially like his visualization technique for representing a low level of competency in a foreign language. These are about German and French, but could be about any language, really:
This one will feel relevant to ABCs in China:
Itchy Feet is also the comic that did this amusing take on various Asian scripts which went semi-viral a while ago:
I recently saw a link to this article on Facebook: One Billion Drinkers Can Be Wrong (China’s most popular spirit is coming to the U.S. Here’s why you shouldn’t drink it). So it’s a post laegely about how baijiu (白酒) cannot success outside of China because it’s a terrible, terrible liquor. (Some of the comments I read on Facebook went much further, and I’ll address that sentiment below.)
Now I’m no fan of baijiu; I’ve made this clear in the past. And when I say it’s terrible, I know it’s because I personally will never develop a taste for it, and I’m not interested in “giving it a chance.” I’ve done that. Plenty of times. (Same goes for chicken feet.) I think part of it is that I resent a certain idea that sometimes gets tossed around: if you’ve been in China this long, you should have learned to like baijiu by now. Nope, sorry. Don’t like it. Now leave me alone.
But I’ve also learned–thanks to my friend Derek Sandhaus–that it is possible for westerners to develop a taste for baijiu. I seriously doubt it’s ever going to go mainstream, but the Chinese will ensure that there’s always a market for the stuff.
The article linked to below, though, goes way beyond the idea that the Chinese like it and westerners typically don’t. It reminds me of Seinfeld’s “chopsticks bigotry” (which is actually funny, because it’s a bit more self-aware):
> I’ll tell you what I like about Chinese people … They’re hanging in there with the chopsticks, aren’t they? You know they’ve seen the fork. They’re staying with the sticks. I’m impressed by that. I don’t know how they missed it. A Chinese farmer gets up, works in the field with the shovel all day… Shovel… Spoon… Come on… There it is. You’re not plowing 40 acres with a couple of pool cues….
What’s interesting about this type of opinion of baijiu is that this is a truly dividing issue. Some westerners will actually hold the opinion that “this is a vile alcohol and no one should drink it, Chinese or not.” You might hear some cross-cultural statements of the some ilk about peeing in public, or disregard for safety, but attacking another culture’s favorite alcohol? It’s just a bit bizarre.
From the original “cannot use” list, the only other one she’s picked up has been personal pronouns (which she’s still getting used to). I really thought it would be a while before I heard 把 come out of her mouth. She’s definitely not using 把 often, but it’s already in that little brain…